In the canon of American music, one of the most overlooked yet influential figures is the songwriter and bandleader Sunny Ozuna. Proudly Mexican-American, Ozuna and his band the Sunliners (previously known as the sunglows) cut swamp pop and soul music that sounded like it could have come from Memphis or New Orleans but in fact came straight out of their hometown of San Antonio, Texas. In 1963 Sunny appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, making him the first Latino artist to appear on the show.Another thing that made Sunny such a groundbreaking act was his decision to form his own label, Key-Loc Records, in order to control his music. At times he recorded in English and Spanish, which wasn’t exactly common for a soul singer at the time. There’s no question that Sunny’s soulful sounds have influenced the soul revival of the last decade with acts like Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, and Sharon Jones playing for large and enthused audiences. Given that fact, it seems fitting that Big Crown Records – home to acts like Lee Fields, Lady Wray and El Michels Affair – has released a compilation of Sunny’s called Mr. Brown-Eyed Soul.
Spanning the years of 1966 to 1972, the compilation captures the prolific artist and his band during an especially fruitful period. The first track “Should I Take You Home”, with its brassy hook and heavenly background singers accompanying Sunny’s silky smooth voice, sounds like it could be nailed by the Dap-kings decades after its recording. You can hear his James Brown-like howl on “The One Who’s Hurting Is You” before the loungy, organ-tinged buttery crooner “Our Day Will Come”.
Part of what makes this compilation especially fascinating is that it provides a glimpse of an artist who was not just ahead of his time, but was incredibly versatile both in terms of vocal range and in the types of music he created. “Forever” marries a touch of slow burning doo wop with soulful swamp pop, while his swooning take on “I Only Have Eyes For You” gives The Flamingos a serious run for their money without relying on a larger group of backing vocalists. “Get Down” finds Sunny and his band fully embracing funk and nailing it out of the park, while “Rain Makes Me Blue” carries a subtle jazz touch with a tango piano line. Inventive stuff no doubt.
Besides giving soul freaks a much needed release, Mr. Brown-Eyed Soul paints a portrait of Sunny and the Sunliners as a group capable of crafting perfect pop songs and doing so on their own terms. Not only that, but the sheer range of styles presented over the course of this collection illustrates a band that was eager to take risky musical chances as long as they could still tug at your heartstrings. Sunny still performs for adoring audiences today, and it’s not exactly a surprise that he personally approved the selection of songs considering how well they show his talent and influence. Even if you aren’t familiar with Sunny and the Sunliners, Mr. Brown-Eyed Soul is a must-own for any music lover.